In today's world, the call for more sustainable practices is resounding louder than ever. One significant challenge we face is the management of plastic waste. Traditional plastics, often used in single-use items, can take hundreds of years to decompose. When they do they leave behind toxic residues that enter our fragile ecosystem. Even after decomposing they continue to contribute to the devastation of our environment. Compostable plastics offer a promising alternative, but what happens to most of our recycling, and how can we encourage the benefits of compostable plastics to create a greener world for future generations?
Understanding The Recycling Journey
There is no doubt that recycling is a crucial part of waste management. It aims to greatly reduce the burden and pollution in landfills while conserving valuable resources. The recycling process involves collecting, sorting, processing, and transforming materials into new plastic products.
However, recycling plastic is more complex than handling glass, paper, or aluminum materials. Much of the plastic we consume cannot be recycled. Sadly, what can be recycled often degrades during the process. It is important for all consumers to understand the facts; plastic can only be recycled two to three times before it can no longer be used. This limited recycling potential, coupled with the high cost of recycling, poses challenges in achieving a truly circular economy for plastics. Producing new plastic is usually more cost-effective than recycling, contributing to the pervasive reliance on new plastic production. Many recycled plastics also have ‘new’ additives, known as virgin plastic, included to provide the product with additional strength and ensure they meet the manufacturer's demands.
Plastic must also be very clean even to hit the possibility of recycling. This is a vital step for all eco-conscious communities. Cleaning your jars, bottles, and the like correctly can determine if the product can reach the level to be accepted for recycling. Some recycling plants do wash the products; however, this vital step is advised for all households before putting it out for collection.
In many cases, the dirty plastic sent for recycling will end up in landfill as the product cannot pass the clean standard to be remade into additional plastics.
Many consumers believe the good work is done by rinsing and correctly sorting their plastic products for recycling. Leaving them kerbside with the notion that they have done the right thing for the environment. But often, this is not the case. The recycling system is much more complex. It can include if that recycled plastic is currently in demand or how often it has been through the chain. If demand is not there, or the plastic has been recycled too many times, it will inevitably end up in landfills around the globe. Reducing plastic usage and switching to an alternative product, such as compostable plastic, and ensuring this bioplastic is correctly disposed of is the only way to minimise this eye-watering amount of plastic we use and dump into the environment.
Sadly, the prospect doesn’t look good. The rate virgin plastic is being produced and provided to the world is terrifying, and the experts all agree we are yet to hit the plastic peak. According to the UN Environment Programme, if the historic growth trends continue, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tonnes by 2050. They also conclude that of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally, less than 10% has been recycled.
Profound change needs to occur on a Government level to address this growing problem.
The Perils of Recycling Traditional Plastics
While recycling is crucial to mitigating plastic waste, it's not a silver bullet. Often, the process of recycling plastics can merely delay the inevitable journey to non-recyclable waste – cue the landfill. According to National Geographic writer Lilly Sedaghat, recyclables can become almost useless without market demand. Placing items in the recycling bin won't make a difference without profitability. If the demand isn't there or the post-use material quality is compromised, the materials might end up in landfills or incinerators. Sadly, most consumers are unaware that their hard work with their recycling regimes is often effortless, and the product will ultimately end up causing environmental harm for all ecosystems, including our own health.
A Second Life with Compostable Plastics
Compostable plastics offer an alternative that breaks this cycle. These materials are designed to naturally degrade and return to the environment without causing harm and can allow everyday products to enter the circular economy [Add existing blog link]. Investing in compostable plastics and the necessary infrastructure can reduce our reliance on traditional plastics and prevent long-lasting pollution.
The key is putting pressure on governments to invest in the correct infrastructure for composting and allowing a streamlined effect so consumers can be sure that their hard work in sorting food waste and compostable products do not go to waste. Transforming trash into the soil is the only way forward. The notion of abolishing plastic entirely is a beautiful notion, however completely impracticable. An eco-friendly alternative is needed to ensure our desire for this product is filled while removing the risk they pose to our environment.
This is where compostable plastics can play a significant role in areas that cannot be switched to glass, metal, or aluminum – products that can be recycled repeatedly without compromising quality.
International Approaches to Compostable Plastics
Leading countries worldwide are recognising the potential of compostable plastics and taking proactive steps to incorporate them into their waste management strategies.
- United Kingdom: Consumers' increasing environmental awareness drives the UK's interest in compostable plastics. Research indicates the pressure the Government is witnessing among UK residents to switch to compostable plastics, emphasising the importance of supporting such initiatives.
- United States: The US is experimenting with compostable plastics as part of waste diversion efforts. However, challenges such as limited composting facilities and inconsistent regulations hinder widespread adoption. Recently in California, a new law was passed requiring all packaging to be recyclable or compostable to reduce plastic use significantly.
- Australia: Similar to the UK and the USA, Australia [Add existing blog link]. is witnessing a growing interest in compostable plastics. Initiatives to build composting infrastructure are gaining momentum, but more comprehensive efforts are needed to achieve the desired impact. The Australian Governments National Plastic Plan has announced that 100% of packing is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
The Call for Change
As global citizens, we must acknowledge the limitations of traditional plastic recycling. While it's a step in the right direction, it can only delay the inevitable landfill fate for some plastics. We can create a more sustainable future by embracing compostable plastics and investing in the infrastructure to support them.
Your local government also plays an essential role. Government regulations create market opportunities for companies to recycle legally mandated products. But every district and state is different. Before you throw something away, check what your city actually recycles, and those products that cannot be recycled consider plastic-free alternatives.
Recycling plastics is essential to waste management, but there are other solutions to our growing plastic problem. Compostable plastics present a viable alternative that addresses the shortcomings of traditional recycling. By learning from the examples set by the UK, the US, and Australia, we can pave the way for a world where compostable plastics play a central role in preserving our environment.
Through collective action and the establishment of composting [Add existing blog link]. infrastructure, we can ensure that our commitment to sustainability extends beyond mere recycling, creating a more lasting and positive impact.